True nature of things LO3890

Dave Birren, MB-5, 608-267-2442 (
Mon, 27 Nov 1995 09:02 CST

Responding to David Frampton in Re: Learning the earth system LO3799:

First of all, I want to state my belief that we can never know the true
nature of things. The contexts of our experience are too complex for us
to ever know them in detail. The best we can do is try to understand them
as deeply as we can, stay aware that our ignorance is vaster than we will
ever know, and build in safeguards for the errors we will inevitably make
as a result of applying limited knowledge and great ignorance to the
situations in which we find ourselves.

That said, I want to comment on a conversation between David Frampton and
John Woods.

John said:

>I have always been bothered when I hear people say that human beings
>should not tamper with nature. Why? Human beings are a part of nature.
>We can't not tamper with nature. Nature tampers with itself and we are
>just part of that happening. I suppose the issue is the intelligence with
>which we participate in this and our awareness that it's going on..

So far so good. But we delude ourselves when we think that we are smart
enough to "tamper" responsibly. We just can't know the full scope of the
consequences. John continues:

>Whenever we think/act as if we are somehow separate from the nature that
>created us, we will inevitably create problems for ourselves--that is a
>false assumption. I like to say that "human nature is just the human form
>of nature."

This is on the right track. But if we are going to pretend to
intelligence, let's push our own envelope and recognize that by being the
most influential and self-aware creature ever to appear on this planet, we
have the responsibility to maintain that awareness through all of our

David responded:

>I agree with John Woods, and I immediately recalled some words by Richard
>Rorty I had recently come across: 'the notion of reality having a "nature"
>to which it is our duty to correspond is simply one more variant of the
>notion that the gods can be placated by chanting the right words' (in
>'Objectivity, relativism, and truth'). 'Tampering with nature' and
>'social engineering' seem to me to belong in the same basket. But using
>these terms bypasses the point that human culture is a giant engineering
>feat in which we have little choice but to participate. We simply need to
>constantly seek ways of being better engineers.

I won't repeat what I've already said about ignorance and responsibility,
but only add that human culture is NOT the result of engineering. It's
the result of millions of blind experiments conducted over time. I think
of engineering as a search for the relationships among a specific set of
variables and the creative ways they can be assembled, WITH MAXIMAL
PREDICTION OF THE CONSEQUENCES, such as building a bridge or a computer.
At its worst, experimentation expresses the thought that we don't know
what's going on, so let's try something and see what happens, and I think
this captures most human experience from the beginning to the present.

We are incredibly arrogant in our steadfast insistence that we have the
resources to understand the true nature of things. Decisions must be
made, it's true, but just think what it would be like if, instead of
assuming we had the right answer, we typically assumed that we might be
wrong.... if human history were marked by open-mindedness instead of
self-righteousness... if we could manage organizations on the basis that
what we want is less important than what the situation calls for...


David E. Birren                          Phone:   (608)267-2442
Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources     Fax:     (608)267-3579
Bureau of Management & Budget            E-mail:

"Our future is to be food - Wisdom's gift - for what comes after us." -- Saadi (Neil Douglas-Klotz)